Previous week I returned from a fantastic trip to the Moroccan city, Marrakech. I came across several cultural and ethical differences in people, a fact that left me too satisfied with the whole experience but many times sad for the low levels of welfare. I am, also, grateful for their hospitality and helpfulness. The more I travel the more I understand that the poorer the people the more open and sociable they are. Westernized people seem to have that vast deep belief that are something important and other people should chase over us. However, I believe that what mostly describes Marrakesh is the word bargain. It’s not that is the only place that many bargains take place. But the whole old city is slated so that cars don’t pass by and is full of small markets. Thousands of shops that sell almost everything. Mirrors, wooden furniture, athletic clothes, bags, bread, legumes, spices, leather clothes, hand-made musical instruments, fruits, shoes, nuts and many more other things. Others very practical, others only for decoration. Wherever you would be walking around the old city you would pass people shouting at you (the competition was very high) or even dragging you just to have a look at their staff. Even though, they were never using an unkind manner, if you made the “mistake” to reply, you would have to almost always engage in a “competition” of demand and supply prices.
The vast majority of these people was not educated in sales and psychological technics, of course, and definitely they cannot be compared in skills to professional sales-men. However, they seemed to be aware of several sales rules that resulted from personal and communal experience. With the term communal experience I mean that the possibly more evolved strategies of a neighbour can certainly be used by a seller himself, it’s difficult to remain unobserved in an environment like that. This way the whole city (or maybe country?) was living in the mentality of bargaining. Even the Moroccans were always bargaining hard when they wanted to buy something. It is a very descriptive element of their culture. Enthusiastic as am I, I wanted to take part in the game and notice the rules in practice, as well as, the adrenaline rush.
Click and Whirr
Ethologists, researchers who study animal behavior, had noticed among many animal species specific mechanical patterns in the behavior that were resulting from a specific stimulus. For example, several birds seem to have made an association between the intruders of their “property” with their colour. So a male Robin will even attack a clump of robin red breast feathers placed there but in the beginning not even pay attention to a blue feathered real intruder. The above has been demonstrated by the christian evolutionary biologist David Lambert Lack in his book “The Life of the Robin“. Or a dog that is educated to understand that a bell means he is going to eat, then whenever the bell rings, it will salivate.
These fixed action patterns were later examined on humans. Dr Ellen Langer et. al at The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction in 1978 put two groups of employees that were in a queue to a photocopy machine to ask if they could jump it. The first ones just asked for it and the second, apart from asking, provided a grounding: “Can I please make some photocopies, because I am in a hurry?”. You can understand that the second ones were much more effective (94%) compared to the first ones (60%). You may believe that the reason was the grounding they provided. However, when Dr. Langer put them to just ask: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the machine because I have to make some copies?” there was a 93% of success even though no grounding was provided. The word because seemed to have made the difference. The word because is the click and the acceptance by the receiver is the whirr. This term came from one of the greatest books I have ever read, Dr. Robert Cialdini‘s, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
This way social psychologists have found several click and whirrs that humans are influenced and although not all the experiments have proven it, many researchers are convinced that most of the time they work (Bargh & Williams, 2006). In fact, they are adapted mechanisms for animals to achieve optimal efficiency. Else the brain would have every time to research all the information existing to come to a decision, a very costly situation as for both time and energy resources. These technics, because of the fact that they work, are repeatedly used by people who are aware of them either through experience and/or by studying in order to favour their interests. People from their side need to be consciously aware of them in order not to fall in the trap and to be able to protect their own interests. And our mission becomes more difficult if we take into account that most of the times these methods come disguised with a socially accepted facade leaving us not only unable to reject them but to consciously comply to them.
One aspect of human perception that has been identified is the contrast principle. This is defined as the human tendency to modify his/her impressions about something according to the sequence of previous events. For example, in physics in school I remember a common experiment. If you put your right hand to cold water and your left to hot, when you put them both afterwards in water of moderate temperature, you will feel your right hand warm and the left cold. Human beings seem to notice difference between things, not absolute measures. If we first lift a light weight and then a heavy one, we will find the second one heavier than if we had just lifted it without lifting the light one. When I was at school, I remember always being extremely pessimistic before the grades in order to increase the chances of later satisfaction. Of course this was not a positive man’s mentality but I didn’t know at that time. Or are you aware of the Duck tales method? When you want to announce bad degrees to your parents, first announce an even worse grade than the real and then explain you were joking. As I mentioned before, these principles can be used as technics and the contrast principle could definitely be no exception.
Bargain, then, is exactly a way for the contrast principle to take place and the seller to achieve his goals. Normally they would start from a very high price. The higher their starting price the higher is expected to be the end price. If they started from 60 euros, for example, common sense would find it very difficult to go below 40 maybe, especially if someone is untrained in that kind of environments. If they ask you for 60 euros let’s say and you reply saying 20 they will trick you pretending that they see you as mad, even though the price may be more tha enough to them. This way they drag you even more towards the rule and challenge your conscientiousness. In the case you are not aware of the balances on the prices it is highly probable that you will accept a final offer much higher than its normal price. As a rule of thumb for me in the beginning was that nothing should be paid for more than the half of the starting price. This of course is science fiction in european consumers’ consciousness.
Robert Cialdini uses the term rejection-then-retreat technique. He explains that, apart from the contrast principle, in the whole concept of bargain is contained the rule of reciprocity. This cannot be explained here for space reasons but in general is our tendency to feel an obligation to reciprocate when we accept an offer. Families, for instance, spend years of presents’ exchange because of mutual reciprocity. Companies give free samples to consumers to invade in their subconscious and drag them indirectly towards them. So when we are bargaining and the seller decreases his extreme asking prices, we are influenced by the feeling of appreciation towards their move and would subconsciously like to reciprocate their good move by accepting the offer or accepting to pay more than we wanted until that moment. Further research has shown that we also have feelings of satisfaction for the purchase, a fact that increases the possibilities to repeat this action.
Holidays in Marrakesh
So the whole day I was walking around Marrakesh and during the night in the night markets in the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa looking around, entering shops without even noticing and bargaining with the owners. Actually even before deciding to enter a specific shop I had already been invited or dragged. When I was inside I had always a specific price in my mind according to how much I needed the object and what kind of quality it was. For whatever reason I was ready to never accept any price more than this even though sometimes I reached unrealistic low prices. Because the contrast principle not only can lead you to accept a higher than a normal price but also to even buy when you didn’t want to in the beginning. It’s just that after many bargains and price reductions you may believe that it is worth it to purchase. In case something wasn’t really needed to me I just picked a very low price in my mind and started the bargain in a much lower one in order to make use of the rule myself, too, to have the chance to later increase my offer but still be affordable. Unbelievably, I purchased goods for less than the 25% of their starting price. It seems that the guys were making jokes when they were first telling me a price.
In order to fit their bargain technics more to the situation some weren’t even telling you the price but were asking you to suggest a price yourself. This way they could judge how much they should ask you about and how much more than a normal price you would find reasonable. This is the time that you should play according to their rules. Say an extremely low price and then increase it gradually but never up to your set levels. You can, even, never increase you price. They used to put the object in my hands begging me to accept their price that was higher than mine. I was saying that it’s ok, I feel sorry we didn’t reach to an agreement and I was returning it to their hands and moving my body to the door. Every time I made this movement, approximately 5 euros were decreasing. I remember a guy that wanted to play tough. So in one of these cases he let me go. I saw him coming after me 5 minutes later. Still he wanted to bargain but it was late. He had to accept my price. Sometimes they let me go and never chase me again. This was the greatest proof that my price indeed was far from realistic.
At that times you have to be focused to rationaly follow your rules. Most of the things were existing in many different markets so I wasn’t even risking if an agreement wasn’t met. Moreover, most of the things they were trying to sell me were nice but not necessary to me so I would buy them only if my low price goals were met. By having this all the time in my mind the whole process was some kind of game and an enjoyable one. Even if I sometimes fell in their traps, still it was part of the process and was a useful learning for later.
Another effective use of the contrast principle that not everyone seemed to be using in Marrakesh is the shop owner to show first an expensive object and afterwards present you a much cheaper one. This way you can understand that the customers accepts the second object as relatively cheaper. Or if the seller makes you purchase an expensive item, afterwards he can point to you much cheaper extras which are very easy for you to buy compared to your first buy. If you purchase an expensive jacket they can afterwards show you a nice shirt or a tie.
In Marrakesh and not only exists the situation of commisions. So there are people on the streets that are asking you all the time what you are looking for. Whatever ever comes to your mind they are ready to find it to you. So they are taking tourists to shops of their friends and observe the bargain. According to how much you are going to pay
afterwards they are going to ask for their commision from their friend. Although this was happening all the time it results in 2 days in prison if a police officer sees them. I found this whole situation very helpful because whatever I wanted to find, I could have it in my hands in a few minutes’ time. At the same time it’s extremely efficient for their markets. Each shop owner doesn’t have to come across a customer that is interested in his/her specific product. The chances are increased if there exist people that allocate the consumers immediately according to their needs.
I mentioned the above to state that effective bargaining led me to a situation that I secretly purchased Argan Oil from a shop. After I had left the shop, because we couln’t agree with a price, the owner found me secretely and made me promise that I would not let the commisioner know that I bought anything because the price was so low and there wasn’t any amount left for the commisioner. This could very well have been another of their ways of convincing me about their low prices. However, if this was true, they wouldn’t have spent so much time hiding the bottle in newspapers and afterwards to my other bags. At the same time I didn’t even care if they were sincere or not, I just had spent the amount I wanted so they didn’t even need to lie. The next days, after looking at other shops, I figured out that indeed the price was great.
Importance of Influence Principles
Although the whole situation in Marrakesh was like a game to me and the price reductions seemed to play the role of points, the contrast principle influences our behaviours in many more serious aspects and in fact it is very difficult to always be aware of them. Real Estate agents show first the worst houses so the customers afterwards accept the others as better and are content to pay more. In Morocco in the beginning of Arab Spring they also had protests. Do you remember hearing anything? King Mohammed VI proved to be very clever. He was proactive so when a few protests began he did elections in order for the country to have a prime minister for the first time. Still the smarter ones recognise that the minister is there for decoration but moroccan people believe that the country is more democratic now. From pure monarchy to elections for a minister. Still starving, though. People now love King Mohammed. And are sure he loves them, too.